Anyone who’s tried to bring about change in his or her community may have heard the message: Change the system from within the system by running for public office, whether it’s a school board, city council or a position on the state level.
But Zócalo commentator Joe Mathews says he’s seeing a disturbing trend of some high-profile public servants in the Golden State stepping down — most of them voluntarily — to head for the world of nonprofits.
Opinion column by Joe Mathews:
If you want to serve the people of California, is public office the best place for you?
The question came up again as one of our most accomplished state legislators, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, resigned her seat to take a leadership role at the California Labor Federation, a powerful alliance of unions.
Gonzalez, best known for legislation regulating freelance work, had different reasons for leaving, from redistricting to her health. But there’s also this: She will have more power to shape California’s future in the labor movement than in the legislature.
That’s because in California, much of our governing power lies outside the government. Over generations, California has constructed a complicated governing system that prizes limiting the power of our public officials. Interest groups then fill the void, writing legislation themselves, and sponsoring ballot measures that impose their preferred formulas on taxation and spending.
This state of affairs can be frustrating for the most creative and public-spirited minds in public office, who earnestly seek to use their offices to get things done. Add that to the increasing threats against public officials and the relatively lower pay of their jobs. Is it any wonder that accomplished public servants are open to better offers?
The departures come not just among the legislative branch’s term-limited members. For me, the most noteworthy resignation came last fall when California Supreme Court justice Tino Cuellar departed.
Why leave a seat on a court seen as second in influence only to the U.S. Supreme Court? Cuellar was thriving in the job. But the justice, a 49-year-old legal and international affairs scholar previously at Stanford, agreed to become president of a leading international think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The post offers not just higher pay than state service but the possibility of making a greater impact. A state supreme court is limited to the California cases that come before it. At Carnegie, Cuellar can work to address a tsunami of global challenges crashing down on all of humanity — from climate change to economic inequality, and from mass migration to technological disruption. And he doesn’t even have to leave California to do it. Carnegie is opening a Silicon Valley office.
Unfortunately, the most skilled politicians in some of our neediest places no longer hold public office. Take the San Joaquin Valley where two former mayors and huge political talents, Ashley Swearengin of Fresno and Michael Tubbs of Stockton, seem unlikely to return to elected seats.
Swearengin did so well in her two terms as mayor of Fresno that Gavin Newsom publicly expressed relief when she decided not to seek the governorship in 2018. Instead, she opted for philanthropy. She leads the Central Valley Community Foundation, where she has spearheaded one of the smartest community investment efforts in the state, Fresno DRIVE. She also co-chairs the California Forward Leadership Council, which works to improve the state’s regional economies.
Put those roles together, and Swearengin looks like a public official without public office — the unofficial governor of the undeclared state of San Joaquin Valley.
Tubbs, elected Stockton mayor at age 26, was voted out after one term. But his record in office was so strong — including an innovative basic income program — that Governor Newsom gave him a job and Macmillan a book contract. Tubbs, with a powerful poor-kid-to-Stanford personal story, would be a strong contender for any California elected position.
But Tubbs writes in a memoir, “The Deeper the Roots,” that holding political office could be a distraction from serving the public. Now he is building a new social movement to end poverty in California. In this, Tubbs is following the new conventional wisdom that social movements are better at moving public policy than politicians. “I enjoyed my eight years in local politics,” Tubbs told a journalist. “But I’m enjoying even more not being an officeholder.”
It’s a real problem when politics become too dull or demoralizing for politicians. California can’t succeed if its most talented leaders conclude that serving in public office is not the best way to serve the public.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.